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Importance of Language Choice

Reader comment on item: The Voice of America, Silenced on Radical Islam

Submitted by Carl L (Singapore), Mar 9, 2009 at 03:11

This article offers an interesting take on the directives as put forward by VOA management. I would offer a counter perspective, suggesting that language choice is vital when discussing the issue of terrorism.

One term that is often bandied about when discussing the subject of terrorism is Jihad (or variations of the word: Jihadist, Jihadi). This term has two meanings; 1) It means Holy war (this is usually how reports in the West understand the term), and the second definition (the one more commonly understood within Muslim circles is defined as 2) a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline. While the term is often used by Western writers to connote a negative act, the use of this language is unintentionally glorifying the actions of terrorists, in that a good Muslim is supposed to engage Jihad in their life.

A second term, this one referenced in the article, "fundamentalist" is defined by Webster Dictionary as:

1: a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b: the beliefs of this movement c: adherence to such beliefs

2: a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles fundamentalism> fundamentalism>

Examining the first definition, while some might disagree with the literal interpretation of the bible, there are a great many people in the United States who ascribe to such an interpretation, including many prominent politicians. As a result, the term "Christian fundamentalist" is hardly used, and when it is, it is not viewed in a pejorative light. However, by replacing the word "Christian" with "Islamic", fundamentalist suddenly take on a negative tone to the western ear and probably does the opposite to Muslims.

VOA's approach is not necessarily a bad one in that the pendulum had previously swung too far the opposite direction during the Bush administration. A case in point was Bush's use of the word "crusade" when describing the United State's war on terrorism. Talk about evoking the wrong image to the world, especially the Muslim community. Words matter, especially when sharing ideas with foreign populations as VOA does. The United States needs to work to reach out to communities around the world, not push them further away. While VOA should not shrink from calling a spade a spade, they rightly are not alienating those they are trying to reach by choosing the wrong words. Pipes is correct that VOA is funded by American tax dollars, but the programming is not designed to reach Americans, it is instead designed to reach audiences that would not otherwise have access to factually sound news. ...

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